At the moment, my biggest challenge is dealing with the pressures placed on gender roles in Fiji. This challenge makes all my other hardships seem insignificant… Electricity, who needs that? I have one small solar panel that allows me to charge my phone and to use a light for several hours in the evening. Running water has become a luxury, and I am doing completely fine without it. The dreaded language barrier has even proven itself to be a minor challenge, as I am learning the language quickly and find that many many people are willing to converse in English. In addition, I must admit that I am even adjusting to Fiji time. However, the one thing I feel like I may never be able to adapt to is the assumed gender roles. Sometimes I am able to accept them as a cultural difference, but most of the time, I am angered! Fijian women are faced with pressure to undertake the traditional “female” roles. These jobs aren’t completed easily while living in the island. For example, laundry requires hour upon hour of scrubbing and hand washing, and this task is only made more difficult by the water shortages we are facing here in Yalobi. Cooking becomes an all day job especially due to the lack of electricity. Because there is no way to refrigerate or store food, every meal must be cooked. Between the large family sizes, inviting every passer by to come eat, and the large portion sizes, cooking always takes a long time due to the large quantities that must be prepared.
Often, I feel like women here are treated as second-class citizens. They have to wait until the men are done eating to eat the food that they cooked, they sit at the back of the kava circles and are served last, and they don’t have time to participate in any of the activities that I consider fun because they are so busy cooking, cleaning, and washing (ie: fishing, hiking to the plantation, playing rugby, etc).
The emphasis on gender roles in this culture creates personal challenges and potentially some barriers for my health promotion project. I aim to motivate women to undertake a more active lifestyle, but this will be tough for several reasons: They have little time due to the expectations that they will complete the washing, cooking, and cleaning for the family, and they have to wear a sulu even while running or swimming which highly restricts movement. It is very important to me that women attend me health talks because they are the ones doing the cooking but I am afraid they wont be able to find the time, so I am going to have to rethink the structure of spreading health information.
During my Peace Corps application process, I did a lot of thinking about gender roles. This is something I am very passionate about, and so I concluded wherever I might be placed in the world, I would strive to empower women by leading through example. I would see the fact that I am a woman as an advantage and use it as an opportunity to inspire as well as encourage independence and liberation. Now that I am here in Fiji, I am finding this much harder than anticipated. The challenges lie in the fact that I am able to defy gender stereotypes and challenge assumed roles with ease because of the color of my skin. I am treated with the same respect as the men. For example, I am always pushed to the front of kava circles, I am served first, and expected to sit at the head of the table during mealtime. I am torn whether or not to accept this treatment, because I feel like rather than empowering the women around me I am fitting into respectful views Fijians hold of westerners. I feel as though I am taking advantage of the color of my skin instead of encouraging women to demand equal treatment. It is frustrating, but I am hopeful that in the next two years I will be able to develop a strategy to deal with these pressures and find an effective role to assume, so I can completely integrate yet empower women simultaneously. Wish me luck in combating this challenge.